slaves of our (geospatial) media

(An excellent post written by Intro to GIS student, N. E.)

Questions of how one must classify geographic information systems (GIS) have received much attention in the years since GIS’s development. While it is most often a debate between calling GIS a science or a tool, geographers Daniel Z. Sui and Michael F. Goodchild suggest that neither of these options properly convey the relationship between GIS and society. In their essay “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media,” they describe GIS as a means of communication, the new mass media (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 7). Throughout their essay, GIS is presented with skepticism. Sui and Goodchild emphasize the abuse of GIS by companies and governments, drawing on the problem of privacy within GIS. However, they likewise address the fact that the social implications of GIS are neither exclusively positive nor negative.

To focus only on the consequences is to miss the point. Therefore, to explore the relationship between GIS and society, Sui and Goodchild (Ibid., 10-12) evoke 20th Century media analyst, Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan’s law of media is founded on four questions that they apply to GIS:

  1. What does GIS enhance?
  2. What does GIS make obsolete?
  3. What does GIS retrieve?
  4. What does GIS reverse into?

Sui and Goodchild answer these questions. First, they propose that our human faculties are enhanced by GIS. Through the use of remote sensing and aerial photography, our eyes are enhanced. Likewise, our brains are enhanced through the various spatial analysis and modeling applications of GIS. The accessibility of geographic information is enhanced. By extension, the place of GIS in society is enhanced.

These extensions are met by consequences. To the second question, “[GIS] also simultaneously make obsolete … various social practices and human faculties” (Ibid., 10). In the case of GIS, the art of traditional cartography and firsthand data collection are becoming increasingly obsolete as a result of the fast advance of GIS (Ibid., 11). In the face of this loss, GIS retrieves long lost social practices (the third question). For example, with GIS has come a return to a kind of oral culture that faded with the invention of the printing press.

Finally, implicit to GIS is a kind of reversal. Whereas GIS began as a an extension of people, soon people become a sort of extension of GIS (Ibid., 12). Environments are shifted to fit GIS, rather than further developing GIS to fit diverse environments. Furthermore, this role reversal of GIS and its environment create a kind of hierarchy between the individual and the system. The implications of this hierarchy are the loss of personal privacy with the struggle to improve the system and data collection. Thus, “we become slaves to our media” (Ibid.). Through these four areas of analysis Sui and Goodchild express the importance of viewing GIS in a holistic manner.

This notion of GIS as media continues to gain relevance. The increase in online geospatial databases, search engines such as Pipl and Wink, and social networking sites such as Facebook make it increasingly easy to find geospatial information of individuals. With these kinds of technology, tracking down an old friend takes a few minutes. The problem becomes whether it is morally right for these search engines to communicate the information of individuals. Zabasearch, a people search engine, provides both listed and unlisted telephone numbers (Ibid.). In this way, a sense of agency is removed from the individual for the sake of an accurate and convenient system. Sui and Goodchild summarize this idea nicely by stating that: we are “more concerned with what GIS does for us rather than to us” (Sui and Goodchild 2003, 14). It is important to acknowledge both the benefits of GIS and the consequences and attempt to fully recognize the social implications of GIS.

Daniel Z. Sui; Michael F. Goodchild, 2003 “A tetradic analysis of GIS and society using McLuhan’s law of the media” Canadian Geographer 47, 1: 5-17. The article is worth reading in full. It discusses the role of GIS as a mass media in much greater depth and raises interesting connections between McLuhan’s theories and GIS.

Gina Trapani. 2007, “How to track down anyone online” This post gave me insight into the roles of new search engines to disclose geospatial information about individuals without their knowledge or consent.

Nicholas Carr’s “The social graft” Another post I found quite interesting in regards to the functions of GIS and its implications on privacy.

Comments are closed.